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Thread: A How-To Guide to Becoming a Prominent Muslim Scholar in the 3rd/9th century (based on the life of Abū Zurʿa al-Dimashqī)
Yesterday I briefly introduced Abū Zurʿa al-Dimashqī (d. 894CE), who was regarded as the leading religious scholar of his generation in Syria.

Today I'll discuss key factors that allowed him, and other scholars, to rise to prominence in the 9th–10th c.

First, some context. I take Abū Zurʿa's rise to prominence as encompassing aspects of the universal in the particular. That is to say, I think his family background, education, and career are largely representative of what was needed to become a famous Muslim scholar. -rh
In 9th c., the Sunni ʿulamāʿ had emerged as an informal yet increasingly institutionalized societal force in the Muslim world. And their authority was built on their distinguished role as the preservers of religious knowledge (i.e. their status as the heirs of the Prophet). -rh
Due to the societal valorization & support of religious learning, the possession of religious knowledge (ʿilm) served as a valuable form of cultural & social capital. In a way, we can think of obtaining ʿilm (above all hadith) as Bourdieu's "embodied cultural capital." -rh
This embodied cultural capital required an accumulation of skills (literacy in Arabic), learning (Quran and hadith), manners (adab, proper religious practice) that were valued by Muslim society and distinguished the possessor of ʿilm as one of the ʿulamāʾ. -rh
So what factors were needed for someone like Abū Zurʿa al-Dimashqī to gain entrée into the ʿulamāʾ and rise through its ranks?

Without further ado...
(1) Be born into a family with some scholarly pedigree.

Abū Zurʿa's father was a minor hadith scholar in Damascus and he introduced his son to the city's scholarly community at a young age.

(Two of AZ's uncles also dabbled in the transmission of hadith) -rh
Abū Zurʿa's father related traditions from the likes of al-Walīd b. Muslim and Sufyān b. ʿUyayna to his son.

And Abū Zurʿa reports traveling to Ramla w/ his father as a young boy to hear hadith. So I'd call this a head start on acquiring ʿilm. -rh
Abū Zurʿa's father was clearly invested in his son's religious education from a young age, which is confirmed by Abū Mushir al-Ghassānī's astonishment at how young AZ was when he 1st attended the esteemed scholar's study circle (which his father probably brought him to).
This early start was particularly advantageous for an aspiring scholar as the collection of Prophetic traditions w/ "high isnads" from high-ranking religious authorities was increasingly becoming the coin of the realm in the 3rd/9th c. -rh
And Abū Zurʿa gave his sons the same educational advantage. In fact, four generations of AZ's family were involved in the transmission of hadith.

And AZ's primary Damascene teachers—Abū Mushir & Duḥaym—also both came from multigenerational scholarly families.

(2) Be born into a middle-class family w/ a respectable tribal lineage.

Similar to being born into a family w/ scholarly pedigree, this is luck. But it was an advantage if your family had money b/c the pursuit of a serious religious education required materials & travel. -rh
As Franz Rosenthal noted, most ʿulamāʾ came from a "certain middle-class background based on commercial activity."

And this appears to be the socio-economic background of AZ's family, which owned a house on the western periphery of Damascus near the Jābiyya Gate. (see map) -rh Image
Being middle-class also meant more "leisure" time for education (e.g. regularly attending study circles to hear hadith).

As I've noted, Abū Zurʿa's father had the means to take his son on a trip to hear hadith in Ramla.
And a respectable Arab tribal lineage (i.e. social capital) never hurt an aspiring Muslim scholar.

Abū Zurʿa was from the Banū Naṣr b. Muʿāwiya who took part in the conquest of Syria and settled in Damascus & Ḥimṣ. -rh
Notable Naṣrīs were ʿAbd al-Wāḥid b. ʿAbd Allāh who led the pilgrimage in 723 & served as governor of Medina under Hishām b. ʿAbd al-Malik, and Muḥammad b. ʿAbd Allāh al-Shuʿaythī, a well-respected scholar, who served as al-Manṣūr’s (d. 154/775) treasurer in Baghdad. -rh
(3) Grow up & reside in a major city.

Still a bit of luck needed here but an aspiring scholar could relocate. And LOCATION MATTERS. Cities like Damascus, Baghdad, and Kufa were the centers of religious learning not to mention the economic & cultural hubs of the caliphate. -rh
Yes, I know that there are plenty of exceptions of scholars from the provinces who built their reputations by extensively traveling in pursuit of knowledge—e.g. the authors of the Sunni hadith canon. -rh
But it was much easier if you were Abū Zurʿa in Damascus and you could walk right over to the Mosque of Ibn ʿAṭiyya around the corner from your house and hear al-Walīd b. ʿUtba relate hadith.

Or pop over to Abū Mushir's study circle at the Umayyad Mosque with your father. -rh
C'mon, not many people wanted to travel to Tarsus or Ṣūr to hear a few hadith.

But if you lived in Damascus you could hear hadith from the numerous prominent scholars visiting your city. Abū Zurʿa reports studying w/ Ibn Maʿīn & Aḥmad b. Ṣāliḥ in his hometown. -rh
So to sum up the first 3 points:

An aspiring scholar, like the young Abū Zurʿa, really had an advantage if they came from an urban, middle-class family with a respectable Arab tribal lineage. Are all these elements essential? No, but they certainly gave you a leg up. -rh

By the 3rd/9th c., the journey in search of knowledge (al-riḥla fī ṭalab al-ʿilm) was becoming a rite of passage for students who aspired to become religious authorities by becoming “inscribed within a prestigious genealogy of scholarship.” (Touati, 8)

Abū Zurʿa traveled to Ramla, Ḥimṣ, Raqqa, Baghdad, Kufa, Fustat & Mecca between 826–834CE. On these trips he studied w/ Abū Nuʿaym, Ibn Ḥanbal, Abū al-Yamān & others.

And the likes of al-Samʿanī later praised him for “his absolute commitment to the search for knowledge.” -rh
The necessity of traveling in search of knowledge is also a major reason why many scholars were merchants who were financially self-sufficient and already traveled extensively for their work.

-rh Image
**To Be Continued**

It's time to parent and then prep for teaching so I'm (@richheffron) signing off for today. I didn't anticipate this thread being soooo long—my apologies!—but I promise to finish it up tomorrow. (Maybe the Iowa caucus results will be in by then 😏)

@richheffron I'm (@richheffron) back! Where was I? Ah, yes, TRAVEL.

Traveling in search of knowledge (i.e. hadith) was preferably done at an early age so you could rack up high isnads. Most scholars would travel widely in their teens & early 20s.
For instance, Abū Zurʿa seems to have begun his studies at home w/ his father & uncles. Then he attended the study circles of prominent hadith scholars in Damascus before setting out on the 3rd/9th c. version of study abroad for almost a decade from ages ~15–25 y.o.
-rh Image
Richard Bulliet has an excellent article on the system of education w/ a focus on age structure based off his research on medieval Nishapur. From my studies, most of his findings hold for the 3rd/9th c.… Image
So what did scholars do in their late 20s after their travels?

Most likely cont'd to attend hadith sessions but w/ out the aim of collecting high isnads. They would've settled down, had families & took up jobs as teachers, tutors, Quran reciters, artisans, gov't officials, etc.
For ex., Abū Zurʿa was surely bringing his 3 sons to hadith sessions when he was in his ~30s as all of them are recorded as relating hadith from prominent Damascene scholars that AZ was connected to. Which goes back to the advantage of coming from a family w/ scholarly pedigree.

Ok, not quite. But after their travels, the more ambitious scholars embarked on setting down the knowledge they'd collected into "organized" works of hadith, hadith criticism, biographical dictionaries, legal manuals, legal responsa, etc. -rh Image
These writings ranged from a scholar's teaching notes, which were later compiled & arranged by their students into a set form, to books that were written & arranged in organized fashion by the scholar who intended its verbatim transmission.

Pic info: Four pages of codex with remnant of binding cord. Script is naskhi book hand. See Malczycki, William Matthews. Literary Papyri from the University of Utah Arabic Papyrus and Paper Collection.
These mid-life writings were a major part of what defined the legacy of prominent scholars from the 3rd/9th c. onward.

And this was how Abū Zurʿa productively whiled away his middle age—composing his "Taʾrīkh" & "Ṭabaqāt" while working & taking his sons to hadith sessions. -rh
For instance, the latest scholar's death date that Abū Zurʿa provides in his "Taʾrīkh"—which was above all concerned w/ dating—is 249/863 so AZ likely finished compiling this work in the 860s when he was ~50–55 y.o. & the oldest scholar listed in his Ṭabaqāt died in 256/870.
It likely would've been around this time, in his early 60s, that Abū Zurʿa 1st held his own classes for transmitting all those hadith w/ high isnads that he'd heard during his studies in Damascus, Ḥimṣ, Baghdad, Kufa, and Fustat.

Which brings me to the last factor! (الحمد لله) Image

Frankly, the older the better. Well, at least until you went senile. I list these together since hadith w/ high isnads were the coin of the realm, so the oldest religious authorities tended to attract the most students. Bibliothèque nationale de France, manuscript Arabe 3929, 2nd quarter of 13th century  Folio 180 Recto: maqama 36: Abu Zayd and his listeners
The system of religious education in the medieval Muslim world placed the utmost emphasis on the extreme ends of the age scale.

So if you didn't live past AT LEAST 60, you almost certainly weren't going to be memorialized as a notable scholar for posterity.

The average death age of the 20 Syrian scholars that Abū Zurʿa relates from most often in his "Taʾrīkh" was 76 years old! And the "Taʾrīkh" is not a hadith collection.

Abū Zurʿa died at ~80–85 y.o. And the year before he died, he transmitted a collection of his hadith. ImageImage
And if you were an old, reputable scholar living in a major city, you would attract students from near and far. Biographical dictionaries of ulema are littered w/ reports of students either hearing from elderly teachers just before their death or just missing the chance.
It was these students who carried on your scholarly legacy by transmitting your hadith & other writings.

While well-known scholars drew many students from afar, they also had a coterie of local students—sometimes their kids—who regularly attended their majlis over the years. Scene in a mosque; illustration from the 7th maqama of al-Hariri Maqamat, manuscript copied and illustrated by al-Wasiti, executed in Baghdad 1237. MS. ar. 5847 f. 18v., the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris.
And in this way, the system of religious education in the Muslim world was continued from parent to child, teacher to student, generation to generation.
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